For my STEP project, I studied abroad in Toledo, Spain through the Fundación Jose Ortega y Gasset summer intensive program. I took a course on art and architecture in Spain and interned at El Hospital Nacional de Parapléjicos (The National Hospital for Paraplegics). In my free time, I traveled to other cities in Spain including Valencia, Granada, Córdoba, Madrid, Segovia, and many more.
My time spent living and working in Spain was definitely a life-changing adventure. First and foremost, I found that when a challenge arose or when things didn’t go exactly as planned, I was able to quickly adapt and solve the problem without much difficulty at all. As someone who likes things very organized and planned, this was a struggle for me at first, but I could see a change in myself throughout my journey. I was also surprised just how easy it was for me to assimilate into the Spanish culture and adapt to a new way of life that is very different from what we are accustomed to in the United States. Finally, I learned first-hand that people from cultures all around the world have diverse opinions and handle situations differently, yet we all, more or less, come to the exact same result.
During my time abroad, I had many opportunities for problem solving as my traveling rarely went as planned. Many times alone, I had to figure out my way around new and confusing modes of transportation and communicate with others in Spanish, not my native language. My job at the hospital was also very difficult as I had many responsibilities that were very new to me. I worked primarily in the physical therapy department and almost all of the patients that I worked with were wheelchair-bound with serious physical disabilities caused by diseases and accidents. Many of the patients had mental disabilities as well, which was a challenge as many times it was difficult for them to communicate their needs. I also found it very difficult at first to communicate with many of the people in the hospital due to language differences and accents- it is the largest and most prestigious hospital of its kind in all of Europe so there were patients from many different countries there. I was able to overcome each of these obstacles, making many mistakes, by being open to criticism and learning as much as I could about the culture and way of life and being open to new ideas.
I was able to adapt to and assimilate into the Spanish culture mainly by getting out of my comfort zone and trying new things no matter how uncomfortable it felt. I met many local Spaniards and we would go out to eat occasionally and discuss current events and whatever was on our minds. This was a great way to learn about the Spanish culture in a way that I never could have in a textbook. Working at the hospital, virtually no one I was around knew how to speak English so I was completely immersed into the Spanish language and culture, which was very challenging but rewarding. I tried my best to live like a Spaniard in every way- always using public transportation, listening to Spanish music, watching Spanish movies, and eating Spanish food.
Throughout my trip, the differences between Spain and the United States were very evident- mostly in the schedule, education system, and general way of life and attitude. At first I thought that some things we did in the United States were better and that certain things done in Spain were better and made more sense, but then I realized that there is usually more than one way to do something and that one way is not better than the other- just different. For example, in Spain, students who want to be doctors can start down that path at the age of 18. They start studying medicine right away instead of going through undergrad first. This is very different from the process in the United States, but in the end, Spanish doctors provide the same quality of health care as our doctors in the United States.
Being able to understand and work successfully with people of another culture will greatly benefit me in the future. I plan on becoming a doctor and would like to work primarily with the Spanish speaking population in the United States while traveling to aid underprivileged populations in Spanish-speaking countries around the world. Just like in the hospital in Spain, I will undoubtedly come into contact with people from other cultures on a daily basis throughout my career, and it is important that I am able to understand and respect cultural differences among people. Furthermore, in life in general, it is extremely important to be able to adapt quickly to new and changing situations. This experience has taught me to “go with the flow” more and has enhanced my ability to approach new and difficult situations in a more effective manner. I am so grateful for this adventure and I know that it will be one of the highlights of my college career.